Op-Ed: Courts needed major makeover

By Rep. Ken Weyler
Published in USA Today – December 6, 2011 

Over the past three decades, New Hampshire‘s court system had become outdated and inefficient. Complaints about underfunding the courts ignored the reality that the system needed a major makeover.

First, some history:New Hampshirehas traditionally had three levels of courts, supreme, superior and district, plus a minor role for a probate court. The 1990s saw the addition of a family court, which was added a few counties at a time. Our population is 1.3 million people in 10 counties. Each county had a superior court, with an extra one in our largest county. There were 29 district courts, a leftover from horse and buggy days. Many of these courts were only part-time for the judge but were fully staffed five days a week.

Before 1984, courts other than the supreme court were funded by fines and fees, which that year amounted to $17 million. Eleven years later, the legislature discovered that the cost of the courts to the general fund had increased by almost 300%, while fines and fees had only increased about 20%. Legislators had left it to the court system to adjust fines to keep up with expenses, but the court system did nothing. That was changed.

Relations between legislators and the courts continued to deteriorate. The chief justice of the supreme court was impeached by the New Hampshire House in 2000 on another matter. The state Senate did not convict. Accusations that activist judges had improperly meddled in education policy further soured relations between the two branches. For their part, the courts felt as if they were being mistreated in the budget process.

Things began to change for the better when a new chief justice of the supreme court, which has jurisdiction over the lower courts, set up a reform committee that was headed by a business consultant and included a prominent legislator. Real reforms were made with the cooperation and support of the legislative and judicial branches. The major reform was creating a new trial court that combined the functions of district, family and probate courts, eliminating several judgeships. Many other positions were eliminated by changing administrative staff assignments, shifting to part-time staff and e-filing court documents. We are only in the first year of this reform, and a second year will complete it.